Vintage Treasures: Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny
// Black Gate
Roger Zelazny is one of my favorite authors. He wrote a wide range of fantasy, from Hugo-winning science fantasy (the brilliant Lord of Light) to a wildly original epic (the ten-volume Chronicles of Amber) to Sherlock Holmes-Lovecraft pastiche (A Night in the Lonesome October). Only one of his novels has ever been adapted for the screen, however: his post-apocalyptic adventure Damnation Alley, first published in hardcover by Putnam in 1969 (above left, cover by Jack Gaughan).
The book follows Hell Tanner, a condemned murderer, who's offered a pardon if he will attempt a suicidal run across the blasted terrain from L.A. to Boston to deliver a plague vaccine. Tanner faces radioactive storms, 120-foot-long snakes, killer bats, giant mutated scorpions, and desperate human survivors as he traverses the thin habitable zone zig-zagging across the nuclear-scarred ruins of America. The movie, which barely rises above the level of camp, was expected to be a major blockbuster. But it had the misfortune to be released the same year as Star Wars, and it sank without a trace.
The movie did a lot of things wrong… but one thing it did right was to focus much of the marketing on Tanner's sweet ride: the Landmaster, a gigantic, grenade-throwing, nearly impenetrable all-terrain vehicle. It was custom designed for the film. Only one was every built — at a staggering cost of $350,000 in 1976 — and it still survives today. That's why it pays to get the extended warranty, especially during periods of nuclear armageddon.
Ever since the film was released, the Landmaster has become the defining image for Damnation Alley, showing up in one form or another on the cover of every single paperback edition. Here's an assortment of covers spanning nearly a decade, from Sphere in 1983 (below left, art by Chris Foss), Tor in 1984 (below middle, Alan Gutierrez) to Sphere again in 1990 (below right, art by Chris Foss again).
[Click on any of the images for bigger versions.]
I enjoy surveying cover art, but I also like to see how the marketing copy changes over the years. Here's the cover and text to the very first paperback edition, from Berkley Medallion in June 1970 (art by the great Paul Lehr):
I like Lehr's Berkley cover, even though he totally forgot to put the Landmaster in there. The first to do that was Sphere Books, for the UK paperback edition in April 1974 (art by Eddie Jones):
But my favorite back-cover copy comes courtesy of the movie tie-in, published in November 1977. Paul Lehr painted the poster — featuring the Landmaster, naturally — and it was reused for the paperback.
Finally we have the Tor version, one of my favorite Damnation Alley covers. You don't know how often I've longed to have a Landmaster during my morning commute.
Damnation Alley has been reprinted a handful of times in the 21st Century. Below left is the Gollancz SF Collectors' Edition (Oct 2003, art by Chris Moore); in the middle and right is the wraparound cover for the 2004 iBooks edition (art by Dennis Calero).
If you're interested in seeing the movie — and it does have its moments — it's currently available in both DVD and Blu-ray.
Damnation Alley was first published in paperback by Berkley Medallion in June 1970. It is 157 pages, originally priced at 75 cents. The cover was by Paul Lehr. It has been out of print since 2004, but digital editions are available.
See all of our recent Vintage Treasures here.
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